Ibn Hazm, Abu Muhammad ‘Ali

Ibn Hazm, Abu Muhammad ‘Ali
   One of the towering figures of the Islamic West in al-Andalus, Ibn Hazm was indisputably the greatest and most original thinker of the Zahirite juridical-theological school. He was also a philosopher, poet and historian of religious ideas, and is said to have composed over 400 works in all these various areas, although only a relatively small number are still extant. Among these are numerous influential legal studies, as well as his most important theological work, The Book on Religions and Schools of Thought (Kitab al-fisal fi al-milal wa al-ahwa’ wa alnihal), his main work in logic and the philosophy of language, The Approach to the Limits of Logic (al-Taqrib li hadd al-mantiq), a treatise on ethics, Character and Right Conduct in the Healing of Souls (al-Akhlaq wa al-siyar fi mudawat al-nufus), and The Dove’s Neck Ring (Tawq alhamama), a treatment of love that blends metaphysics, psychology, social commentary and autobiographical anecdote. In keeping with the Zahirites’ insistence on interpreting the Qur’an and sunna literally, Ibn Hazm generally held a dim view of reason, although did not reject it outright. Reason on his account plays an essential if subsidiary role in enabling us to grasp the relevant facts necessary for understanding an authoritative text, based on its actual language and context. It is not quali- fied to discover truths or legislate values on its own, independently of revelation, tradition or sense perception. When reason presumes to determine what revelation may or may not mean – and thus diverges from the apparent sense of the text towards some putative allegorical or esoteric meaning – it opens the door to arbitrariness, unproductive disputation and ultimately, deviation from the tradition of genuine Islam. Although Ibn Hazm does not subscribe to the grammarian Abu Sa‘id al-Sirafi’s criticism of Aristotelian logic (i.e. that it is intimately bound up with the concrete particularities of the Greek language, which it cannot presume to transcend), he still regards it as far more modest in its application than the philosophers thought it was, and balks at the assumption that logical-linguistic categories necessarily carve nature at the joints.
   Although Ibn Hazm was scrupulous about offering fair, accurate presentations of his adversaries’ positions, he often failed to recognize their real internal force, and his objections can thus sometimes seem like irrelevant intellectual sniping. But Ibn Hazm was a serious and perhaps overly sensitive man, with a profound appreciation for the important truths that language can reveal, if only it is used carefully and treated respectfully. He also had a keen sense for the ways in which language can be employed in the service of our passions, prejudices and individual preferences, thus obfuscating the truth and misleading human beings. It was this kind of abuse that he saw in the thought of his adversaries, and read in this context, Ibn Hazm’s cautious traditionalism can serve as a valuable antidote to the potential excesses of rationalism.
   Further reading: Chejne 1982; Hourani 1985; Ibn Hazm 1953/97, 1990

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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